Three years ago, 31 U.S. troops were killed when a military helicopter was shot down in eastern Afghanistan.
The dead included Navy SEALs, Army soldiers and a military working dog. Seven Afghans were also killed in the Aug. 6, 2011, attack.
Three days after the worst mass casualty event for American troops during the ongoing war, I was part of a USO contingent sent to Dover, Delaware, to assist families of the fallen. I have not written about the specifics of that day, as the families requested privacy while the caskets of their loved ones were returned to American soil. Their request is one that I will continue to honor.
No matter how many years go by, the sights and sounds of Aug. 9, 2011, will remain vivid, painful and fresh. I would guess that everyone, from the president on down, will always remember the dignified transfer ceremonies that unfolded inside that hangar.
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I can’t imagine what the last three years have been like for the grieving wives, fiancees, girlfriends, parents, grandparents and children I saw at Dover Air Force Base. The only thing I know for sure is that their courage, along with the bravery of their fallen loved ones, has helped define the enormous sacrifices made by our nation’s military community since Sept. 11, 2001.
When I think of the determination I saw on so many faces at Dover, which was sweltering with anguish and pride on a hot summer day, I also remember the ceremony’s palpable sense of unity. Despite the presence of politicians, there were no Democrats or Republicans inside that hangar. In the truest sense, we were all Americans.
I completely understand and respect why — in the aftermath of losing their loved ones — the families asked Dover Air Force Base to close the dignified transfers to journalists and spectators. At the same time, I wish everyone could have seen the ceremony up close, because it defined what it means to be an American.
Our nation has an opportunity to reunite around its true heroes, who come from every background and political stripe. By following the examples of the brave men and women returning from war, along with their families and those who made the ultimate sacrifice, the rest of the population can share in the title that the one percent to serve in uniform have already earned: “The New Greatest Generation.”
I can’t tell you how many times a wounded warrior has said he or she would make the same decision to serve all over again. Countless grieving spouses and parents have echoed the same sentiment while reflecting on the loss of their loved ones. Regardless of the war or the politics surrounding it, these extraordinary Americans believe service always comes before self.
I am not always successful in trying to espouse the ideals of our nation’s heroes and their families in my own life. Not even close. If all of us made that effort, however, there is little doubt that more harmony would follow.
One of my most vivid memories from Aug. 9, 2011, involves a mother and child. I think about them often, and three years later, continue to pray that they are comforted by memories of the hero they lost.
The sights and sounds I remember from Dover are nowhere near as harrowing as the experiences of the courageous men and women who shoulder the burdens of our nation’s global campaign against terrorism. But no matter where I go or what I do, the memories will always be there.
The post-Sept. 11 struggle continues. One day before the third anniversary of the deadliest single incident for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, an American general was killed — with several more service members injured — in a despicable attack that is currently under investigation. The general was the highest-ranking U.S. military officer killed in action since the Vietnam War.
While our hearts break for the loved ones of the dead and wounded, our resolve to support this nation’s defenders should be stronger than ever. To each member of the military community: Thank you for your sacrifices.